Women stage games in Toronto
by Andrew Podnieks|24 SEP 2019
Brianne Jenner (left) and Brianna Decker (right) are usually rivals on the ice but currently fight for a common goal, a better professional league for women.
photo: Marko Ditkun / HHOF Images
So many of the names are familiar – Marie-Philip Poulin, Hilary Knight, Rebecca Johnston, Laura Fortino, Jocelyne Larocque, Brianne Jenner, Emily Clark, Natalie Spooner, Brianna Decker, Sarah Nurse, Meaghan Mikkelson, Kacey Bellamy.

They have all won gold medals at the Olympics and Women’s World Championships. Millions have watched their classic Canada-United States finals games over the years. And yet there they were in Toronto, this past weekend, playing as one, together, for each other and, more important, for their sport.

Called the Dream Gap Tour, the women’s newly-formed PWHPA is ramping up activities on two fronts, trying to gain much-needed exposure and trying to find a way to start a truly professional women’s hockey league.

“The Dream Gap Tour is first about exposure and the talent of the players and trying to grow our game,” explained American Brianna Decker, an Olympic gold medallist in 2018 and a Clarkson Cup winner in the CWHL with the Calgary Inferno last year. “Once the CWHL collapsed, that was devastating news for all of us who were playing in it, especially the Canadian players who have dedicated so much of their time to it. We met with some of the Canadian players just to make sure we were all aligned, making sure we were working together. On ice, we’ve had lots of disagreements, but off ice we have a common goal of growing the game to something bigger than what it is right now.”

And that is how Canadians and Americans got to where they are today. After the CWHL and NWHL playoffs this past season, and after the Women’s Worlds, the CWHL shuttered and the American national team players vowed not to play in the NWHL until everyone could play in one league, a truly pro league that reflected the skills of its players and the quality of its game.

“This is a chance for a group of players who have formed a players’ association to come together and energize each other and a new generation of fans,” said Fran Rider, president of the OWHA (Ontario Women’s Hockey Association) and IIHF Hall of Fame inductee. “The more exposure for these players, the better. They all should be household names, and they are all dedicated to building a better game in Canada and the United States and throughout the world, and to get equitable treatment in the future.”

“After the CWHL folded, the players came together and created this unified group that realized they wanted to stand up and make a difference, create something better than what they had before,” said Jayna Hefford, an inductee of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and the current leader of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. “It’s been an inspiring and impactful process. What we hope to get from this weekend is to show people how great these athletes are and get people on board with the purpose of the movement.”

“We’re trying to promote the PWHPA and get the exposure women’s hockey deserves and to show our skill,” said goalie Shea Tiley, a gold medallist at the 2014 WW18 and two-time NCAA champion with Clarkson University. “We want to give little girls something to aspire to. Last year was my first year in the CWHL, but it was a professional league that wasn’t really professional. Women’s hockey deserves more. We’re not asking to make millions. We’re asking to be treated like athletes, not like... I don’t even know what we were treated like before.”

“This has been on the radar for a long time in terms of the wants and the needs for a truly professional league,” Hefford continued. “That difficult time forced everyone to look at the bigger picture and what to believe in and what to fight for. Out of that, they knew it was time, and they knew their power came in one, collective voice. And that unity is something never before seen in women’s hockey.”

What is not lost on the players is the incredible development of the game on the ice. Consider how much more skilled a player of 2019 is compared to 1990, the first year of the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. The training and dedication, the speed and calibre of play, are all exponentially greater today than in 1990.

But off ice, the world’s best players still need day jobs, practice in local rinks late in the evening or early in the morning, and have no proper league to play in.

“On ice, we’ve learned from the players who have come before us, and we know we have to continue to improve and learn and get better,” Decker explained. “Off ice, things haven’t changed because we haven’t had the right opportunities, and we haven’t had the right people to support us and create something bigger. And that starts with creating a professional league.”

“From the outside, people saw the athletes were getting better and the game was getting better,” Hefford agreed, “but the business side of the game hasn’t been able to keep up with the growth and development of the sport. We have to do better off the ice.”

“In some senses, nothing has changed, and in other senses everything has changed,” Rider suggested. “In 1990, the best players were there, and they were incredible players. But now, there is a stronger sports science, different equipment, better fitness. But players still have to juggle work and the game. There’s just not much money for them right now.”

The year 2019 might go down in history as a turning point. There was Kendall Coyne-Schofield’s memorable – and blazing fast! – lap at the NHL skills competition during its All-Star Game Weekend. There was the collapse of the CWHL and support of the U.S. women, and, most recently, there was the boycott by the Swedish women’s national team players that was followed recently by the cancellation of the Four Nations Cup in November set to take place in Sweden.

“What the Swedish women are doing is amazing,” Tiley enthused. “They’re standing up for what they deserve. The U.S. national team did that a couple of years ago, and they deserve everything they’re fighting for. I think everyone is proud of them.”

“The Four Nations being cancelled can’t be seen as a positive thing, but we support what the players are fighting for, which is the same things we are – equitable circumstance and treatment,” Hefford offered. “Sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward, and if that what it takes, it’s worth it.”

One thing is certain. These women will continue to find ways to play, find ways to get noticed, and be ready for the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship next spring in Nova Scotia. 

But it’s a long way from now until then, and there is much to do. The 80 women who gathered in Toronto this past weekend know that, and they are up to the challenge.

“We’re fighting for a sustainable league,” Decker stated. “That’s why we’re here. It was tough to make the decision not to play, but as a group it’s the best decision for us. Hopefully it will lead to better things in the future.”

That future begins now.